When and where did you study abroad?
I studied abroad in Rennes, France, during my third year of undergraduate studies. The term lasted from August, 2011 until May, 2012.
What made you want to study abroad?
During my first two years of university, I was living at home, completing my required courses with ease; I was involved in a few extracurricular activities, and even had a part-time job up until the beginning of my second year. But I still felt something was missing. I asked myself what would make me more attractive to employers upon graduation. I had trouble coming up with an answer at first, but I added a co-operative education option to my degree and explored study abroad opportunities with my school’s partner institutions. I liked the idea of being immersed in a foreign culture, and the potential to bring back skills and knowledge to sell to employers upon graduation.
What was the biggest surprise about your study abroad experience?
The biggest surprise about my study abroad experience was the change in my professional interests. Prior to my exchange, I was a BComm. student with a concentration in finance. Several months into my exchange, my concentration changed from finance to management. Now, how did that happen? While abroad, I was able to learn about myself. As a result, some of my interests changed. Studying abroad forced me to change as an individual and learn about things that I previously had no interest in.
What made your study abroad experience abroad a success?
The numerous benefits and skills that I gained from my study abroad experience definitely made it a success. Studying abroad is an invaluable experience that has benefited me both personally and professionally. My time abroad has allowed me to gain fluency in French to a level where I can express myself with a degree of ease and spontaneity. When I first arrived, I’d been pausing constantly in my speech to search for words to explain things – like telling the clerk at the hypermarket that I wanted a loyalty card. Studying abroad in France has also provided me with other benefits and skills, some of which are: lifelong friendships; learning to think outside the box (which I find invaluable now); confidence, in myself and when dealing with unfamiliar situations; and learning how to adapt to new situations. However, those benefits do come at a cost. My cost was the money spent on the experience, and the student loan debt that resulted from it, but I can still say that it was definitely worth it.
How did you deal with the cultural divide?
Before my departure abroad, I knew that French culture would be different, and this was something that initially made me anxious and nervous. To deal with this, I made sure that I took French culture as something new and didn’t expect it to reflect my own culture. Essentially, I behaved as an outsider. Thankfully, I was living with five French roommates; I observed them carefully and when I was unsure of their reasoning in their way of doing things, I would ask them to explain it to me. In fact, they were more than willing to explain their culture and share it with me. I then began integrating myself into the culture more, imitating things my roommates and French friends would do. By doing so, it allowed me to learn more about the culture and develop a more thorough understanding of it. Learning a new culture this way served as an advantage for me when I was traveling to different countries during my time abroad, as each country has its own particular culture.
What did you miss most about home?
I missed my parents most. This feeling did not come instantly. I missed the food from home right away, but I missed my parents most when I was sick. In January of my year abroad I became really ill and had a high fever for several weeks. I’m not sure if it was the flu, but I had to take two boxes of antibiotics, nasal spray, and pain medication! When I was sick, I didn’t feel like going to the grocery store... nor did I want to cook my food or wash my clothes. It made me realize all the little things my parents would do for me when I was living at home. Being aware of this, I am now more appreciative of all the things that are offered in my life.
What was your return like?
Near the end of my exchange, I was looking forward to returning home, but wanted to stay in France at the same time. I was attached to France and didn’t want to leave. When I arrived back home, I felt like a stranger in my hometown and had even forgotten some directions that I used to know off the top of my head! Things seemed the same back home – very little had changed. Friends remained the same, and here I was, a different person with different tastes and interests. I had trouble communicating to some friends that I felt I’d changed. This was easier for some friends to understand than others. I also learned that you continue to evolve even after your exchange.
What is your number one tip for anyone hoping to follow in your footsteps?
The number one tip is really to be willing to try new things spontaneously (using your common sense, obviously). Yes, you will be hesitant and afraid at times, but by stepping out of your comfort zone, you will reap big rewards. Even if it is an experience that you do not like at the time, you’ll always be able to look back and say, “Hey, yes, I did that while I was abroad”. When you study abroad, you will be going to school, but you will be learning new things outside of school, and this is what makes study abroad a privilege. Looking back, I sometimes regret not going on trips that were proposed to me. I simply thought I would have another opportunity in the future – but I was wrong. While on exchange, time passes by so fast you will need to be spontaneous. At first, it will feel odd, but you will feel amazing once you get used to it!
Do you have any final reflections on your experience?
When things go wrong during your time abroad (such as missing your train), don’t forget to be happy and keep a sense of humor – this will go a long way!
Did you participate in extra-curricular or social activities while studying abroad? If so, how did they differ from social activities in your home culture?
I regularly went to the park for picnics with my friends and when we got there, the lawn would be filled with so many people! The French really enjoy taking their time to relax and value a carefree life compared to North Americans. That’s something I was not used to at first! When I went to parties, I also noticed that the French spent more time in getting to know me, and once they knew me, they would talk about themselves more too. I found the French to be more genuine when talking about themselves. Lastly, in regards to nightlife, the music played in the clubs and bars felt very European. Since I lived in Brittany, they played some Breton Celtic songs, which this created a different atmosphere. As a result, some of my taste in music has changed (along with my taste in so many other things)! I still play some of that Celtic music in my car sometimes!
What are your future plans for going abroad and for your career?
Increasing my self-awareness. Through this international experience, I've definitely learned a lot about myself, but I do believe there is still room for improvement. Being more self-aware will allow me to integrate faster into new environments. Also by being more self-aware, I’ll be able to help others experiencing cultural adjustment issues, which will be beneficial. Another big area for improvement would be to expand my pool of cultural knowledge. Today, businesses are becoming more global and knowing about other cultures is vital if you want to be successful! There are so many ways to improve: interacting with individuals from different cultural backgrounds, traveling to new places, or even watching television programs on new destinations. Lastly, I’d like to still improve on how I handle ambiguity. Before my exchange, I can definitely say that ambiguity was not my friend! But things changed during my exchange and I handle it much better than I did before. Sometimes I’m still hesitant in unfamiliar situations, but by stepping out of my comfort zone regularly at home, I hope to improve even further.
I would say I would definitely like to work in a field where I am able to use and further develop the skills I gained abroad – specifically, my adaptation and cross-cultural skills. I do have a field of work in mind, but as I've learned while studying abroad, everyone's interests will change over time! I would like to work in human capital consulting and recruitment, but I’m also open to a career in international business development. After being immersed in a different culture abroad and having my opened my eyes to globalization, I think I would love working with individuals from different cultures. It would make my work interesting!
Daniel’s story offers an excellent example of how time abroad can contribute to your personal growth, and alter your career aspirations. Daniel now has an interest in internationalizing his career and even, perhaps, pursuing work in international business. We’d recommend that Daniel build his international experience after graduation, by taking on an internship or work placement abroad and/or by pursuing a master’s degree (perhaps an international MBA) at a foreign institution. Now that he has built strong adaptation skills and started learning about his cross-cultural personality, he should attempt to combine time abroad with professional, career-boosting experience.
- International Trade Resources list links to Web sites, organizations and books offering business terminology, statistical analysis, international business directories, etc.
- The Ideal International Profile lists the qualities necessary to succeed in the international workforce. Use it as a checklist as you near graduation.
- Career-boosting Strategies While Studying Abroad offers ideas on how to maximize the career value of your study abroad experience. These tips can be applied when pursuing master’s degrees overseas.